04 February 2009

2. Lolita by V. Nabokov

What a book! Such great, fine writing. And English isn't even his first language! In the author's note at the back of my edition (more on this in a second) VN apologizes, saying, "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses - the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions - which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."

I find it infinitely interesting that the punning, and nicknaming, and playful experimentation with language is coming from someone who is not native to English (and so perhaps bored with routine constructions, etc) - like Joseph Conrad, one of the greats of English Lit, whose English wasn't even his second language.

So, let's get the reputation out of the way right off - the book is about a grown man, Humbert Humbert, sleeping with a 12 year old girl, Dolores Haze, or Lo, or Lolita. The book is also cited every single time a teacher crosses the line and gets with a student, especially if the teacher is a man.

Told as some kind of police statement, or a rationale for crimes committed, the book follows the adventures of Humbert as he explains the circumstances leading up to his meeting with Lolita, and her consequent two year long kidnap-and-rape roadtrip.

Humbert has the misfortune of renting a room in Lo's mom's house. Right from their first meeting Humbert feels an attraction for Lolita. She reminds him of his first child-lover, Valeria. And it seems Humbert has an eye for detail, and he pores over Lolita's body, in detail, over and over.

When Lolita is sent to camp her mother leaves a note explaining for Humbert and asking him to leave. Not able to break away from Lolita, Humbert decides he will marry the mother and then keep Lolita as a side project. Unfortunately the mother unit discovers Humberts journals and tries to kick him out of the house. On her way to mail some hastily written letters describing Humbert's perversions, Mrs Haze is run over by a car and killed (an echo of the Great Gatsby?).

Now Lolita is all Humbert's! How exultant he is! He can barely keep his composure. He rushes through the funeral and races to the camp to pick up Lolita, his Lolita. And for the next two years he keeps Lolita his prisoner and sex pet.

At first, in their very first physical encounter in the house as she is leaving for camp, Lolita makes the first move. She runs into the house and kisses him full on the lips. But even this has been built and stoked by Humbert by way of little "innocent" kisses and pets.

Then, when they are finally alone in the hotel room, Humbert drugs her in order to take advantage of her as she sleeps. But the pills are not strong enough and as he lays next to her, pretending to be asleep, she crawls over to him and jumps his bones. He is astonished.

Sometimes it was difficult for me to remember that she is 12-14 years old as the story progresses. He speaks of her in adult terms, and in our newspapers (and our webpages of "barely legal" porn) the term Lolita has come to mean young, but almost old enough.

But always before US is her childishness; she wants to ride her bike with her friends; she wants to go to dances and get sodas and hang out with her friends from the school play. But jealous Humbert won't have it and keeps her captive. He even apportions her allowance based on sexual favors and promises of loyalty! When he comes for her more than once in the night she says, "oh no!" but yet he persists.

The book, Humbert's road trip sex adventure, was published just a year after On the Road. I'm sure the Grown Ups thought the country was headed off a cliff.

Eventually Humbert and Lolita separate. And for good. She runs off with another child molester, this one a movie producer, and eventually she gets married. Humbert goes insane. When he comes out of it he tracks down Lolita and finds her a pregnant 17-year old. He gives her all of his money, and her mother's money, and asks her one more time to run away with him.

When she declines, he moves on with his mission to kill the guy who took his Lolita away from him. And this is what he iwnds up in jail for - this is the crime that compels him to write the story which is the book. All throughout he addresses us readers as members of the jury - as if we are to judge him. Are we to pass judgement on his actions, or decide a sentence?

I read an annotated copy and I think I would have missed out on a lot if I hadn't had the notes to accompany me on the journey. And not just for elaboration of the hundreds of puns in the book. More for the references that Nabokov is making on purpose:

1. the Haze house is 342. The hotel room where Lo and Humbert get together is 342. When he goes searching for Quilty after Lo is gone, he stops at 342 places.)

2. There's a lot of james Joyce in there, some of it direct and obvious (at one point HH actually uses the phrase "portrait of the artist as a young" (and I think he says pervert, but I can't find the quote now). Nabokov was one of Joyce's groupies (Nabokov considers Ulysses a masterpiece and Finnegan's Wake a piece of garbage. But more of that later.)

3. Quilty is there in the whole book. In my book's Notes he has his first reference on page 4. Clare Quilty's mistress is Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of..wait for it...Vladimir Nabokov.

4. Edgar Allan Poe references galore (including Annabell Lee/Lo-lee-ta explanations and correlations).

There's tons more but we'll start there...


Buzby said...

Great review. It is really a fantastic book, I wished I had managed to read it again before the 'Lolita forum' deadline.

Olman Feelyus said...

You can find my review here:


Crumbolst said...

Great review. I didn't catch most of those references. But I agree that Finnigan's Wake is a piece of shit.

Mine's here:


Redwing said...

Some of the references, like I tell my kids, don't mean shit. And many times they are collected and cross-referenced by some asshole doctoral student in search of a thesis. I almost didn't include the reference to 342 because what F-ing difference does it make? Zero.

I often think of the author's note that precedes Huck Finn. Twain warns readers that anyone looking for a plot or a moral will be shot.

Redwing said...

Crumbolst said:

"Apparently, according to the back cover of the same book, a Time magazine reviewer called it, “Intensely lyrical and wildly funny.” I think I missed the wildly funny part. Where was that? Okay, I did chuckle at some of his prickly observations of American culture. But what else is funny about it?"

I thought some of the punning was funny, and some of the wry commentary on the sightseeing he and Dolores managed to squeeze in in between squeezes (was that Nabokovian?) was funny. Especially when I consider On the Road's road tripping.

But saying that Humbert is funny, or that the (entire) book is funny is like saying, "the guard at my concentration camp was just funny as hell! You should have heard the shit he came up with!"

It is lyrical though. The writing, well, some of it is divine. And really clever. I appreciate the made up words in the attempt to capture the exact emotion or the precise tone of the observation...

Redwing said...

Crumbolst said, in a comment:

"I am railing on the character Humbert Humbert, the self proclaimed horrible wretch of a man."

I guess I found myself forgetting that HH is a shitbag because he is so charming. And also, I think, because I know he has been caught and punished (alas, throughout the book I assumed he was caught and punished for kidnapping and child rape), so in a way I could worry less about condemning him, thinking he already was condemned, and so I could concentrate on understanding him.

He fooled me.

Redwing said...

Great review, Olman!

"He feels remorse at Dolores' loss of childhood. Several other times in the text, he explicitly takes himself to task for being the person who deprives her of her childhood."

He does do this a number of times, but still he perseveres! I lose all compassion and understanding for HH when he reaches for Lolita and she says, "oh no" or "not again" but he still uses her for his own pleasure. She's not a person to him, as much as he professes his love; she's a tool. An animated, sassy form of masturbation.

And he knows her so little that he has to rename her, changing her from Dolores to Lolita, one nickname bastardized into another until she is completely Not Herself.

Olman Feelyus said...

I find it pretty funny. Not laugh out loud funny, but that kind of insane, slightly scary funny that can happen when smart people are drinking together and talking late into the evening. Both HH and Quilty are kind of jesters, play-acting their own lives. HH is a jester of the intellect, pointing out his own sins and flaws, whereas Quilty is a jester of action. The part that cracks me up is when he sneaks onto the tennis court to play with Dolores. When HH sees him out the window and Quilty sees HH seeing him, he runs away and does this little comical flapping of the wings. That was absurdly funny. It's like one guy is a kidnapping pederast on the run, the other guy is chasing him to steal his treasure and yet he can still joke and goof around, pretending he's "flying away" and in some that is probably the real fun for Quilty. That's kind of insane and funny, I find.

Olman Feelyus said...

That's also a very good point about HH changing her name, to further obliterate her identity. The more I think about it, the more I see this book as a condemnation of the solipsistic masculine ego. HH is in love with his obsession and thus himself. The whole book could be a kind of giant hallucination where he is the only character.

Redwing said...

"The whole book could be a kind of giant hallucination where he is the only character."

And thus HH is jerking us off instead of...

Redwing said...

"a kind of giant hallucination"

I though about this, but then thought, did Nabokov really write the first version of I Am the Cheese? Nahhhh...

Redwing said...

from a Newsweek article:

"There are probably a few people left who still have the idea that 'Lolita' is a Ribald Classic (a.k.a. 'romp') like 'Tom Jones' (which Nabokov, by the way, found 'horribly dull') or a pornographic farce in which we slaver along with an aging roué in his pursuit of a seductive (a.k.a. 'nubile') young minx who basically has it coming to her. But anyone who's read the book knows that Humbert Humbert is a fearful, treacherous and guilt-ridden man in early middle age, and that his victim is a confused 12-year-old, whose father has died and whose mother fears and resents her budding sexuality. The dominant note of Humbert's yearlong erotic rhapsody is 'her sobs in the night-every night, every night-the moment I feigned sleep.'

In the dozen or so years I've been teaching 'Lolita' to graduate writing students, more than one now grown woman has told of having read the novel in early puberty and finding the title character an empowering figure-and except for their use of the cant term 'empowering' they seem to have turned out just fine. Humbert's 'victim,' they point out, actually initiates the first full-on sexual encounter, and thereafter she's in control, playing him for clothes, junk food, doodads and a grand tour of America's tackiest tourist traps, doling out her favors while holding a rape charge over his head, and ultimately abandoning him for a new 'protector.' I'm all for taking empowerment where you find it, but the novel makes clear that, despite her small Pyrrhic victories, this is a broken child. The heartbreaking scene in which we see her playing tennis shows her life in microcosm. She's supremely graceful, 'always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home,' and she always loses. Her form, Humbert concludes, is 'an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis-without any utilitarian results.'

Those who know the novel understand that there is no such person as the enchantress "Lolita"-only an ordinary American girl named Dolores Haze, fond of pop music, chewing gum and roller skates, encumbered with a nickname too exotic for her to inhabit. The book's title is an artful misdirection: it points not at its putative heroine, but at her representation in the narrator's mind. And while Humbert Humbert works hard to beguile his readers, he never seduced his creator; in one interview Nabokov called him 'a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear "touching".' The closest Nabokov came to an expression of sympathy was in the foreword to his own translation of his 1936 Russian novel 'Despair.' Both Humbert and Herrmann, the narrator of 'Despair,' are 'neurotic scoundrels,' Nabokov wrote, 'yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year.' And while Nabokov's afterword to 'Lolita' asserts that the book 'has no moral in tow'-that is, it's not a didactic work-he told the critic Edmund Wilson that it was 'a highly moral affair.' On Halloween night in 1958, a little girl came trick-or-treating to Nabokov's door in Lolita costume, complete with tennis racquet; according to Brian Boyd's definitive two-volume biography, the man who'd brought Dolores Haze into being was 'quite shocked.'"

David Gates. Newsweek. New York: Oct 20, 2008. Vol. 152, Iss. 16

Redwing said...

And Mt Benson Report's report:


Lantzvillager said...

Sorry, I haven't had a chance to write this week. At a conference but will be done tomorrow.

Interesting thoughts so far, btw.

opinion be damned said...

It's true that English wasn't Nabokov's mother tongue, but it was what you might call his nurse tongue – he had an English governess and grew up as fluent in English as Russian.  In fact, his family spoke English, French and Russian together, so English was never really his second language.

But on this topic I can't help mentioning his poem, "On Translating Eugene Onegin" which he wrote as a commentary on his English translation of Pushkin's novel.  Nabokov's translation strives for greater exactness in meaning but sacrifices Pushkin’s original ABABCCDDEFFEGG rhyme scheme, which is supposed to be one of the great hallmarks of the novel.  Nabokov’s poem uses the rhyme scheme to demonstrate what’s missing in his translation.  Check it out:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose –
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.

Reflected words can only shiver
Like elongated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana's earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man’s mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task – a poet’s patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.

Good, huh? You can hear echoes of Pale Fire in it.